In 1848, gold was discovered in California, prompting the surge of newcomers pursuing riches of their own. Those “49ers” weren’t the only ones trying to grab some California land: all that new gold was appealing to a U.S. government who had been through several recessions and financial crumblings in previous decades. Despite various objections and concessions related to the run up to the Civil War, California skipped territory status and became a state in 1850.
All that gold, and those various recessions, made the new California state government wary of paper currency. At the Monterey Constitutional Convention of 1849, the decision was made that paper money would not be used, and all currency would trade in specie, coins made from precious metals. California had previously enlisted private mints to produce gold coins in large denominations, but statehood meant the federal Mint was now in charge. California Senator William Gwin helped push for the establishment of the San Francisco mint, and in the process drafted proposals for high-value gold coins to fulfill California’s banks need for specie. Treasury Secretary James Guthrie agreed, and began the process of getting the new coins approved by Congress and available to be minted. A $100 gold coin – a huge, heavy disc – would be called the “Union”, and thus the $50 coin would be a “Half-Union”, and a $25 coin would be the “Quarter-Union”. The $25 was dropped when it was sent to Congress.
Let’s jump forward a few years: In 1910, an arrangement was made between the U.S. Mint, a former Mint employee, and a private collector, to return some coins to the Mint. Two $50 Half-Unions were discovered in the possession of the private collector, who had obtained them from the Mint employee.
The problem was: those coins were never officially minted. The House of Representatives approved Guthrie’s proposal for high-value gold coins, but it didn’t pass the Senate, and the proposal for the Union and Half-Union died. In 1877, most likely as a test die for a similar coin, US Mint engraver William Barber produced two variants on the $50 gold coin, two different sizes of the Liberty head on the obverse, and dated 1877. Whether there was renewed interest in the California-proposed coins, or a new project, coin collectors are unsure of the source behind those $50 dies.
During the 19th century, and a ways into the 20th, citizens could bring gold or silver directly to the mint, and for a small fee, have their metals minted into legal tender coins. This wasn’t unusual, but the Mint – somewhat unofficially – would, for a bigger fee, mint the coins using whatever dies the person requested. These fall under the umbrella of “Patterns”, non-circulating coins produced by the mint but not quite right. Often, these are coins minted using a softer or less-precious metal, as a sample of a new die, or proposals for new coins. This under-the-table negotiation for custom coins is probably a large part of how two $50 Half-Unions could slip out of the Mint into the hands of a collector. The 1877 date is no indicator of when the coins were minted; it is likely that they were minted, at the request of Mint employee Archibald Snowden, some time before 1885. At some point, Snowden sold the two Half-Unions to a private collector for around $20,000 – but this caught the attention of the Mint. Recognizing that those coins weren’t necessarily illegal to own, but a bit too high profile to leave in private hands, the Mint negotiated the return of the coins. Both Half-Unions now live at the Smithsonian, alongside the Brasher Half-Doubloon.
Those were the only known gold Half-Unions, but the dies and design were used to produce other coins over the years. Less than a dozen each of the two obverse designs were produced in copper, as common for test presses but under similarly undocumented pretense, and most of those are in the hands of private collectors — and previous innovative owners had gilt, or gold-plated, the copper coins to impersonate the full-value Half-Union.
The mysterious origins of these unusual coins has made these some of the most desired coins among collectors, if only in their unobtainability. Recently, though, a private collector’s mint has started producing replica Half-Unions, “gold-clad”, for the amazing price of $19.95. Their coin appears to be made after the “large Liberty head” of the two versions, and would definitely – at 2 inches across – be a huge addition to a collector’s shelf. It might not be worth anywhere near what an original Half-Union would be, in any metal, but your chances of finding one of those — and avoiding the attention of the Mint — is minimal.